Photo Credit: John Hafner
So You Want To Start Turkey Hunting? Let's start by learning about wild turkeys, their environment, the hunting season and gear.
About Wild Turkeys:
Wild turkeys are not native to Idaho but were first transplanted there in 1961. Since then, three turkey subspecies have been introduced to Idaho. More than 90 percent of them are Merriam’s Wild Turkey. Others are the Rio Grande wild turkey and the Eastern wild turkey. The Merriam’s wild turkey was the first to be introduced and has been by far the most successful of the three. It is widely distributed in the mountains of the panhandle, clearwater and southwest regions. The Rio Grande wild turkey was next to be introduced in 1982. It is present in areas adjacent to the snake river, Boise river, Payette river and Weider rivers. The Eastern wild turkey can be found in a few sites near Dworshak reservoir. Hybrid turkey can occur in many areas of the state.
We have birds basically from Boise to Canada, with a good number of birds over in eastern Idaho as well. As a general rule, you will find more birds the further North you go. Any birds within a couple hours of Boise are going to get pressured. They also are not distributed evenly amongst the countryside so it is very real situation in which one could go out and go turkey hunting and not see or even hear a bird.
Females are called hens and can only be taken in fall hunts. They are smaller in size compared to Jakes (males) and Toms/Gobblers/Long Beards. Hens are very drab in color, typically a brown or grey color, in order to enhance their ability to hide while on nest. Jakes can often be difficult to identify. Their body will appear black, their head usually red and you will either see no beard or a short beard sticking out of the middle of their chest. They are slightly larger than hens. The rule of thumb is if it gobbles, you can shoot it. Then we have males that are referred to as Gobblers, Toms or Long Beards. They are identifiable by their large body that appears black, a very red head and a beard hanging down off the middle of the chest. Those that are 2 years old or younger are often susceptible to calling, while birds that are 3 years old or above are often more mature and have been around longer.
Wild turkeys are not your average farm bird. These birds are superior athletes. They can run up to 25 miles per hour. To put that into perspective, Usain Bolt became the fastest human ever when he ran 23.35 miles per hour. But running isn’t their only skill. They’ve also been clocked flying up to 55 miles per hour! Long story short, wild turkeys are quick on land and in the air.
Scouting starts 2-3 weeks before you hunt and it will help you find a general area that has a good number of turkeys in the spring. Remember: just because you saw a huge flock of turkeys using an area while deer hunting in the fall/winter, does not mean those birds will be there months later in the springs. Turkeys do not necessarily use the same areas for both winter and spring and they often migrate from their winter habitat to their spring habitat right about when the season begins.
There are different ways to scout for turkeys. You can use trail cameras that help with surveillance/gathering intel. This will help you pattern birds to figure out where they go and how they get there. Cameras also help to know their normal/preferred times to be in specific areas.
Glassing is a low impact scouting technique that allows you to remain very far from the birds as to not bump or scare them. It will dramatically help your confidence in an area to actually see birds. You’ll also learn some of their favorite favored routes of travel or preferred times to be in certain areas.
To properly scout these birds, you need to know how to identify that they’ve been in the area. Here are some things to look out for:
- Pine needle mounds/scratching - It is very apparent where birds have scratched away the pine needles and piled them up in their search for seeds/bugs/fresh shoots of vegetation. May be just a few or at times a whole hill side.
- Droppings/poop - Looks very similar to goose poop in the park. Gobblers will have longer more “J” shaped droppings. Hens will be more of a pile/clump
- Tracks - Snow, Mud, sand. One of my favorite spots to look is around puddles in a logging or forest service road.
- Dust bowl - Turkeys will use dust to help clean themselves, you are looking for small depressions with very soft fine dust. There will often be tracks and feathers nearby.
- Strut zone - This is where a gobbler likes to strut and display for hens. You are looking for serpentine lines in the sand/dirt/gravel from the gobbler dragging his wing tips as he struts.
- Obvious sign of turkey activity - Scratched up leaves, bare exposed earth and a wing feather.
Roost Sites are another thing to look out for. Turkeys sleep in trees and will actually spend nearly half of their lives in trees. Look for a tree or groups of trees with lots of feathers and turkey droppings underneath them. In Idaho’s mountainous and densely forested areas, it can be very difficult to find a roost sight and often times birds will not roost in the same tree night after night. They will often roost somewhere on the same ridge or in the same bowl or basin.
Typically roost areas will be close to a water supply. If possible, they will go for a tree that is situated over running water. In any area, look first at the large trees with good horizontal branches near water. In mountainous terrain, try and find trees right below the ridge tops that are on the leeward side of the prevailing winds for that time of year. If they can, turkeys like to climb up above the roost on the ridge top and fly down to their roosting tree. They then will usually glide down below when they fly down in the morning.
It is also possible to locate roosts by doing lots of walking through an area and looking for the large wing and tail feathers which often fall out when the turkey is flying up or down from the roost. You can also look for piles of droppings which can be quite large when turkeys use a roost tree consistently.
Finally, perhaps the easiest and surest way to find roost trees, is to get there either first thing in the morning or at sunset and listen for the birds flying up to roost or calling on the roost. Most people have heard of the term "roosting a bird" which simply means you have been out the evening before your hunt and you have an idea where a bird is roosting/sleeping that night. A very popular and oh so true phrase is “Roosted Aint Roasted” meaning just because you know where a bird is doesn’t mean you will get him to cooperate in the morning!
Once you have scouted your areas and have an idea of where to hunt, it is time for turkey calling and set-up. While calling, you are essentially trying to convince a gobbler to come over and check out the hen who is calling to him. If he already has hens this can be extremely difficult. (Guy in the bar isn’t very likely to leave girls who are with him, to walk to the other side of the bar to go meet a girl he only hears talking!)
Ideally, you hear a bird gobble and you get as close as you can while trying to eliminate any natural or man-made obstacles (busy road, fences, creeks, rivers, steep draws, canyons) between you and the bird. Try to make it easy convenient for the bird to get to you. Then take a second to locate a tree, preferably wider than your shoulders, to sit down in front of. Finally, clear a spot to sit comfortably (no sticks/pine cones/roots). It’s amazing how in the first initial excitement of getting set up you don’t notice them…you will!
There is no fool proof calling sequence, types of sounds, type of calls, or duration. I have worked birds and shot them after 1 minute of calling to waiting over an hour. I have been a part of a hunt in which we were in a blind and we watched a bird with hens all morning and it was well after noon before he finally came across the field into our spread.
If the hens are calling or responding to your calls this can help your odds because now you are trying to convince the hens to come check out the new girl in town (whether it be as friend or foe!) In this situation I try my best to mimic the hen the very best I can. If she gets excited/fired up then I come right back at her with the same attitude and excitement.
You can also set up and blind call. This means placing yourself in an area where your scouting has told you turkeys have been or will be. This can even be your first time in an area. You are Relying on turkeys being a creature of habit and pattern in an area in which you have either found lots of turkey signs or seen turkeys.
Another option which relies heavily on scouting is an Ambush. Get well hidden and simply wait, don’t call, relying on the birds to just show up. You can also choose to spot and stalk birds by spotting the turkeys then following it while closing the distance until you are in range.
There are 3 common types of turkey calls. The first is slate calls. These are calls that are made from slate, glass or aluminum. There are also mouth calls that actually sit in your mouth and provide truly hands free calling. Finally, there are box calls. Box calls have a basic box shape but come in endless designs and are made with various types of wood.
There are also multiple types of turkey sounds. Males – Jakes, Gobblers, Toms and Long Bears – typically gobble and can travel a surprising distance, especially if the bird is gobbling from the roost. They will also spit & drum. That means the bird is close so do not move! It will be so deep you almost feel the drum and the vibrations. It can often times be tough to pinpoint the location of the call, though.
The vast majority of turkey calling sounds come from hens. There is a purr sound which is very soft and content, cluck sound which is also a soft sound, a yelp – here I am, where are you type call, cutting which is an excited or aggravated sound, and the fly down/up cackle which is the sound often made when the turkey is flying up into the roost in the evening or down from the roost in the morning. If you are close enough you will be able to hear wing beats as well or small branches breaking as birds wings hit them. There is also a putt sound, but this probably means that things are about to go bad.
Locator calls is where it gets a little strange. Crows, owls, peacocks, geese, woodpeckers, elk bugles, coyote howls, dog whistles, air-horns, gun shots and thunder can all illicit a shock gobble. (Think of a high school boy on prom night for a month strait…wound up pretty tight!) Locator calls can lead to problems like birds coming silently to the call, responding too close for you to get set up properly, or not coming at all.
Another important part of your turkey hunt is your gear and accessories. Here are some things you will need before you start your hunt.
- Vest: helps to carry/organize all your calls. Comes equipped with a cushion, imperative to help allow you to sit still/comfortably/longer and pouch to carry your decoy(s) and bird back to your vehicle! One can be amazed at how heavy a turkey vest can be once all pockets/compartments are filled with turkey calls.
- Binoculars: You’ll often be able to use glass to locate birds.
- Rangefinder: It can be very deceptive how close or far they are, especially when it’s your first few encounters you have had with birds.
- Camera/cell phone: You’ll want to take some amazing pictures with your bird.
- Boots/hiking shoes: Be sure they are broken in and comfortable as you may put in some miles in steep country. Make sure they are waterproof as spring time often still has snow as well as creeks/streams running high.
- Bug spray: check yourself for ticks, especially after a nice warm spring day nap in the hills/woods/meadow.
- Shotgun: 12 gauge or 20 gauge. Buy actual turkey loads (will be a picture of turkey on the box, and a steeper price tag). Most common shot sizes are a #6, #5, #4, or a combination of shot sizes. If your shotgun is equipped for inter-changeable chokes you will want at least a full choke which comes with many shotguns. Or buy an aftermarket turkey choke for your particular shotgun. Whichever route you go it is very important that you do go out and pattern (shoot your shotgun at a turkey target to see where it shoots and what your true effective range to cleanly kill a bird is).
- Hunting license & turkey tag(s).
The final piece of gear you’ll want is a decoy or 2. Many people will use a single hen decoy. Maybe just as common is a decoy set up with a hen & Jake decoy. Some hunters will use a flock of decoys 3-6 while others will incorporate a full body stutter decoy or ½ strut Jake decoy as well. (always think safety first…more than one hunter has had an over eager hunter shoot up their Jake/Gobbler decoy)
- If you do notice a hunter sneaking into your set up, yell to them to stop!
- Do not wave or make any type of movement to get their attention, this could unfortunately lead to an unwanted action by them!
- If they are sneaking into your set-up, the bird you were trying to call in is already long gone and now it is about self-preservation!
Low end decoys are decoys that are unrealistic and fairly inexpensive ($15+), while high end decoys are ultra realistic and ultra expensive ($200+)!
With this information, you're ready to gear up for your first spring hunt. Be sure to take pictures to remember it by!